UNM’s El Centro de La Raza provides a home away from home for Latino students
By Barbara Ramirez/ New Mexico News Port
National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated every year from September 15 to October 15 in the United States. The purpose is to recognize the contributions of people of Hispanic heritage.
At El Centro de La Raza on the UNM campus, you could say every month is a celebration of Hispanic heritage.
El Centro was founded for students by students in 1969. This is their 54th academic year serving students from Hispanic, Latinx, Chicanx, and all backgrounds at UNM.
At its heart, El Centro is a resource center helping students with college preparation, admissions, financial aid, scholarships, mentoring, and even classes. It’s also a supportive community space. Some students just drop in to study, get some free printing, use the computer lab, or enjoy coffee or tea.
“The idea at El Centro is to make sure that we’re always welcoming,” said Rosa Isela Cervantes, the Director at El Centro de La Raza and Special Advisor to the University of New Mexico’s President on Latino Affairs.
Cervantes said Hispanic students at UNM may have encountered thousands of people, but when they came into El Centro, “somebody noticed them.”
El Centro was initially part of Chicano Studies. In the late 1980s, it became Hispanic Students Services, and in 1995, students organized and petitioned to change the name to “El Centro La Raza.”
As an undergrad, Cervantes was one of the students who organized to change the name to include the term “Raza.”
“For us, it’s not about the literal translation of race, the term Raza is like my gente, my people, my community,” Cervantes said.
“We really wanted to encompass all Raza: Latinos, Chicanos, Hispanics, New Mexican.”
Mauri Perez is a sophomore majoring in Film and Digital Arts at UNM. He is originally from San Antonio, Texas.
“A lot of the emergency scholarships that El Centro offers have been helpful for me,” Perez said.
“Lately, I have had emergencies with my car and the electronics I use for my major. The emergency scholarships are really helpful.”
According to the United States Census, Hispanic Heritage Week started in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson. It was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover 30 days.
Culture and history are top of mind for El Centro’s Rosa Isela Cervantes.
“One of the cornerstones of El Centro is providing a space where students can be their whole selves. And part of that is understanding your background, your history, your heritage, and being proud of it,” Cervantes said.
“A lot of times, we are the backbone of this country,” said Diego Renteria, a senior majoring in Chicano and Chicana Studies with a minor in Spanish.
“Celebrating and expressing our heritage is very important, especially in the Southwest region, in New Mexico,” Renteria said.